Brian Ashton: A confident fly-half can bring tightest game to life

Tackling the issues
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The Independent Online

After weeks of incessant clamour from coaches and administrators about the difficulty of scoring tries under the rules currently being applied in the tackle area, what happened in the last round of international and Premiership matches? A scoring frenzy.

Tries came along like Blackpool trams, one after another: 25 of them in five games alone, with well over half being credited to the away teams. For those of us who enjoy seeing lazy theories being disproved, it was good fun.

The teams responsible for most of this scoreboard activity – New Zealand and Australia; Northampton, Leicester and Harlequins – had something in common. All fielded a genuinely gifted footballer at outside-half. Dan Carter and Matt Giteau; Shane Geraghty, Toby Flood and Nick Evans ... these are players handsomely equipped to make things happen under any set of laws. As I've repeatedly pointed out since the start of the season, there are always ways of attacking the opposition effectively if people open their minds.

Of these No 10s, the one who really captured my attention was Giteau. I thought his performance for the Wallabies in Cardiff was consummate: a wonderful amalgam of technical brilliance in all departments – running, handling, kicking – and instinctive rugby intelligence, topped off with the kind of courage, mental rather than physical, that separates the best from the rest.

If you look back in history, virtually all the finest outside-halves had the ability to make assessments on the move, to sense precisely what was happening as a situation unfolded and make the right choice. These people are not two-a-penny, but in the modern game, Giteau demands to be included among the rarities. Time and again at the Millennium Stadium, he reacted more quickly than his opponents and nailed home the advantage. Crucially – and this is where the courage comes in – he also played very close to the Welsh defensive line. Many players, some of them extremely good, tend to drift out of this area in the knowledge that a mistake will be very costly indeed, but by doing this they give defences more time to organise. Giteau did not choose to buy himself time. Instead, he backed himself to do the correct thing in the eye of the storm.

What is it that allows the Giteaus of this world to operate in such a way? In my experience, self-confidence is at the heart of it. Of course, there are plenty of super-confident people around who can't actually play; without the right degree of technical mastery, it doesn't much matter how confident you are. But Giteau has all the skills, developed to an unusually high level. He has earned the right to be confident.

During my time coaching England, perhaps Austin Healey came closest to having the Giteau mindset. I don't suppose Austin was everyone's cup of tea, but in my eyes, he had all the mental, physical and technical attributes of an outstanding sportsman. He certainly had the confidence I've been discussing: Austin was absolutely convinced that he was the best player in the world, whatever position he might be occupying at the time. And remember, he is unique in having played for England in every position from scrum-half to full-back – a versatility that virtually gave us a 16th man on the field.

There were four key elements in his make-up, apart from that confidence: he was a genuinely explosive athlete, despite not being the biggest man; he had a massive range of skills; he had a deep rugby intelligence that underpinned the creative aspect of his game; and, perhaps most importantly, he was extremely tough psychologically. He was never afraid to do the different thing, however demanding the environment.

I remember our Test against South Africa in Pretoria in 2000. Austin had stepped into the outside-half position after Jonny Wilkinson pulled out just before kick-off, and the Springboks spent a good deal of time battering away at our line before finally conceding a penalty. Most 10s, desperate for a breather, would have banged the ball into touch. Austin tapped and went. Three passes and one kick later, the ball was in the Springbok in-goal area, where Tim Stimpson was denied a good try by the video ref.

A few months later, when Austin was playing on the right wing against France, he suddenly appeared at scrum-half, pulled an overhead kick out of the locker and created a try for Mike Catt. Can you imagine how an overhead kick would have looked if it hadn't worked? The point about Austin was that he refused to imagine any such thing.

Working with him was invigorating as well as challenging. Unfortunately, many coaches prefer players who are more compliant. Those coaches have it the wrong way round: instead of being afraid of such people, they should encourage them. I believe we are still producing "ideas" players like Austin, although not in anything like sufficient numbers. They should be the favourites of the coaches, not be marginalised for the "sin" of having an opinion.

Hard to better Test of champions

Proof that rugby can satisfy its followers in different ways was provided by Ireland and South Africa. It was a Test of considerable importance – the champions of the northern hemisphere against the champions of the south – and it could have been a dour contest. Yet while there was only one try, those watching witnessed a battle royal between teams who showed positive intent in every aspect of the game.

But for some poor execution there would have been more tries, but as I've argued before, the number of tries does not define the quality of a match. This was hard, committed rugby where attacking willingness was matched by ferocious defence. It's difficult to ask for more.